Thursday, July 26, 2007
Midwest becomes a pipeline for human trafficking
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
The Catholic Key
This poster, which appeared in Great Britain, is one of several efforts around the world aimed at raising awareness of sex trafficking. Many efforts, like this one, are aimed at the ultimate cause of trafficking - the consumer.
KANSAS CITY - It can't happen here. New York or Los Angeles, sure, but not here in Kansas City. It only happens someplace else, right?
"Human trafficking is more prevalent in this region than most people know," said Janel D'Agata Lynch, program manager for community services at Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
"Local people were shocked when the news broke about the massage parlor raids in Overland Park, Kan., and earlier this year, the central Missouri boy who was found, along with a second boy, in the St. Louis area.
"Human trafficking is not always 'some place else,'" D'Agata Lynch said.
A report released in June by the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, labeled the U.S. as "a source and destination" country for thousands of men, women and children trafficked annually for purposes of sexual, and to a lesser extent, labor exploitation.
Procurement and sales of human organs, illegal adoption of children under the age of 18, and mail-order brides constitute other forms of human trafficking.
Melissa Snow of Shared Hope International, a non-profit organization founded in 1998 serving sexually exploited women and children, told The Catholic Key that the Midwest has become a kind of pipeline for human trafficking. "The truck traffic on Interstate 35 may be carrying more than meets the eye," she said. "I-35 bisects the country from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minn., with access to highways leading east and west. Truckers can load women and children into their cabs and transfer them to other trucks at truck stops along the way. They can park so close together that children can be moved without their feet even touching the ground - invisibly."
An unknown number of American citizens and legal residents are trafficked within the country, mostly for the commercial sex industry, including prostitution, sex entertainment and pornography. The State Department estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 American children under the age of 18 are at risk of being trafficked within the U.S. for commercial sexual exploitation.
Kristy Childs, director of Veronica's Voice, a local organization she founded in 2001 to help prostituted women reclaim their lives, said she had been contacted by or worked with more than 5,000 women.
In his February 2007 pastoral letter on pornography, Kansas City St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn wrote that, ". pornography is a serious sin against chastity and the dignity of the human person. It robs us of sanctifying grace, separates us from the vision of God and from the goodness of others, and leaves us spiritually empty. Attraction to pornography and its gratifications is a false 'love' that leads to increasing emotional isolation loneliness and subsequent sexual acting-out with self and others. It depends on the exploitation of other persons: frequently the desperate or poor, or the innocent young. Use of pornography has cost persons their jobs, their marriages and families. Traffickers in child pornography may end up in prison. It has often been associated with and has contributed to, acts of sexual violence and abuse."
Snow said victims come from all ages (the average age of entry into the commercial sex or sex entertainment industries is 13), racial and socio-economic backgrounds. "People try to compartmentalize: 'Oh, they asked for it,' or 'That girl has always been a slut.' We have to re-educate people and change the language to place the blame where it belongs: on pimps and traffickers, not on the victims, especially the children," she said.
Kristy Childs said much the same thing.
"These women and girls are not prostitutes, they are prostituted," she said. A trafficking and prostitution survivor, Childs is familiar with many situations young girls and women unwittingly find themselves in.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Web site on human trafficking cites research done by Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner of the University of Pennsylvania, which indicates that 75 percent of sex trafficked children come from middle class backgrounds. Rural children are often more naive than inner city children, making them easier targets.
Traffickers include criminal networks, strangers, other youth, pedophiles and a transient male population, even family members and acquaintances.
Children are lured from inside their own homes through the Internet (one in five children have been approached online), in school, at movie theaters and arcades, bus and train stations, at the homes of friends or at dance clubs. Runaways are particularly vulnerable, often being approached or coerced within 48 hours of hitting the streets, Snow said.
According to Catholic Charities USA, vulnerable children can be exploited through their need for love and affection, their need to belong or fit in, low self-esteem, physical or psychological needs, or problems at home. Traffickers may promise affection, money or designer clothes. The child is often isolated and alienated from friends and family. Once a trafficker moves a child to a strange place, forcing her into prostitution is simple.
Catholic Charities USA described domestic minor trafficking victims, whether middle class or not, as usually coming from dysfunctional and unstable families, often with serious drug or alcohol problems. There may be a history of physical or sexual assault. Runaways may participate in "survival sex" to obtain money for subsistence, and when compounded by immaturity and poor sexual decision-making, a child's vulnerability to traffickers increases.
The Campus Coalition against Trafficking said that pimps can earn up to $632,000 per year by selling four young women or children.
There are many ways a trafficker can control and enslave a victim. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, control is achieved by confinement or physical restraint (both threatened and actual) and frequent moves from city to city, often across state lines. Victims may be isolated from other people, made to feel fear, shame or self-blame. Traffickers may use or threaten reprisals to the victim or her family. They may make false promises or give misinformation. Frequent beatings, slapping or rape create traumatic bondage. Victims may even form an emotional attachment to their captors due to repeated stress or a need to survive.
When trafficked children or adolescents are brought to the police, Catholic Charities USA said courts often discharge them right back to the pimp, to the family they ran away from, or to foster homes, from which they bolt as they are usually too damaged to adjust. It can be a vicious circle.
Childs offered several other reasons sex trafficking victims don't leave their pimps: they lack money and identification, they may distrust law enforcement or service agencies, and 95 percent or more are dealing with drug addiction issues. Most often control is gained through drug dependency.
Childs said, "These women and girls have been used over and over, trick after trick, day after day, year after year, arrest after arrest, high after high - until they become a bigger liability than an asset. . They become discarded cargo, dumped like trash in the streets, to survive the only way they know how. We need to let them know we are here to help before that happens."
"Each situation is vastly different," D'Agata Lynch said. "It's a complex issue. When someone is rescued, the justice department has to determine if the person is a victim, if coercion or physical threats have had a role in the situation. We are trying to educate and raise public awareness, and help the victims of trafficking. Once a victim is safe, if they request it, Catholic Charities can provide services within the scope of what we already offer: emergency assistance, counseling and case management. We have to learn more about identifying victims."
Ilene Shehan, chief operating officer of Hope House Battered Women's Shelter in Independence said, "People need to look under the surface, there may be something else going on."
D'Agata Lynch said, "Mail carriers have good instincts about what's happening on their routes. Perhaps a lot of coming and going at a particular house; that might be a big clue."
Shehan said people in northwest Missouri come face-to-face with victims every day, at dry cleaners or laundromats, fast food restaurants, factories and farms. "You never know, unless you look beneath the surface, if the young man or woman or the child you just saw is a forced labor or sex trafficking victim. We likewise don't want to think that a trafficker could be an acquaintance or a member of our community."
First and foremost, trafficking victims need safety and security. Catholic service organizations provide support services to both adults and children, including health and mental health services, employment services, English language training, housing assistance and other material assistance programs.
The federal government has continued to work toward eradicating human trafficking worldwide. This effort includes several federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services. In 2006 approximately $28 million were appropriated for domestic programs to boost anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts, identify and protect victims, and raise awareness of trafficking.
The FBI and the Department of Justice Criminal Division work to combat child sexual exploitation through the "Innocence Lost" initiative which resulted this past year in 43 convictions.
Two presidents have signed into law Trafficking Victims Protection acts in 2000, 2003 and again in 2006. Twenty seven states have passed criminal anti-trafficking legislation. The departments of Justice and Health and Human Services have increased the number of anti-trafficking task forces, which partners state, local and federal law enforcement agencies with non-governmental organizations, to 42. In metropolitan Kansas City, the Coalition Against Human Trafficking, Catholic Charities, Veronica's Voice, Hope House, Rose Brooks and Synergy House in Missouri and Joyce Williams/Safe Home in Wyandotte County, in Kansas, plan through a federal grant to train doctors and nurses to identify domestic abuse and trafficking victims.
Under a Department of Justice grant, Shared Hope International is aligning with 10 newly funded Human Trafficking task forces across the country, including Independence, to better identify domestic victims of trafficking and provide them with needed resources. In October, a nine-week assessment of the Kansas City-Independence area will be launched, with a loaned employee of Veronica's Voice serving as an evaluator.
In May, the U.S. Justice Department announced that the Independence police department and Hope House were awarded 3-year grants of $450,000 each as part of the national Human Trafficking Rescue Project initiative to combat human trafficking. Hope House plans to use the grant to provide rescue and investigative services to victims, as well as certification of trafficking, Shehan said. Certification allows survivors to access all available services, programs and benefits, including medical treatment, food and rest, funds and resources.
"The grant and the rescue initiative together underscore the fact that domestic violence and human trafficking are not just legal issues or battered women's shelter issues, they are community and country issues," she said.
Jerry Young of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocesan Human Rights Office said his staff has collaborated with city and state offices to raise awareness of human trafficking both here and elsewhere in the world. "We are helping to educate people and looking to make the burden of proof of trafficking less difficult for both victims and law enforcement. People have a right to freedom," Young said. "Freedom from exploitation and freedom of human dignity."
More information on Veronica's Voice can be found on their Web site: www.veronicasvoice.org